Rental Inspections & Violation of the 4th Amendment - An Open Letter to My Congressman
Following is an open letter that I sent to my Congressman after he spoke at our REIA's main meeting this month.
I would like to thank you, our representative to the US House of Representatives in the 1st Congressional District of New Jersey, for the courage to visit the South Jersey Real Estate Investors Association (SJREIA) and make a presentation. We are not an easy crowd.
As you are well aware, about 1/3 of US households are renters and 2/3 are owner occupants (same for New Jersey's 1st District). Therefore, we share the strong need to assure that we have a majority of excellent landlords who provide high quality housing to the many thousands of renter-voters in New Jersey's 1st District.
At SJREIA, we have excellent landlords with a high sense of social responsibility. Good landlording makes good business sense, despite perceptions in the general population. I know because I take pride in providing very high quality housing to 8 sets of tenants in the 1st District. My tenants know it and appreciate it. As an excellent landlord, I enjoy stable tenants who pay on time and stay for years because they love my houses that are very well maintained. Yes, excellent landlording makes good business sense since tenant turnover is the biggest cost of rentals after mortgage loan payments.
By the way, I am not a Democrat and I am not a Republican. I am fiercely independent and I vote in all elections. I am registered with one of the parties so I can vote in their primaries.
Another note...I will be the main meeting speaker next month at the November main meeting of SJREIA.
Following are the points I made when speaking to you, our representative, at the SJREIA Main Meeting. The violation of the 4th Amendment is a crucial point for both landlords and the 1/3 of the population who are renters in the 1st District and around the country.
1. Selective (Discriminatory?) Annual Rental Inspections of Tenant-Occupied Units Violate the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution.
According to the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution (unless I misunderstand it), it is the right of the people to be secure in their houses against unreasonable searches and no warrants for searches of their homes shall be issued, except for probable cause and supported by oath, particularly describing the place to be searched.
How can the municipalities of the 1st Congressional District or any other place in the United States, be allowed to REQUIRE entry into an OCCUPIED rental unit, every year, without a written warrant from a court that contains a description of probable cause for that specific unit?!!!
I understand the right of municipalities to inspect unoccupied housing units between buyers or between tenants, but I cannot understand the right of municipalities to inspect OCCUPIED units on an annual basis, whether rentals or owned by owner-occupants.
Ohio Case: In response to a challenge by the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a federal court struck down a rental inspection program in Portsmouth, Ohio that “violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it authorizes warrantless administrative inspections.”Jul 14, 2016. Details at https://ohioconstitution.org/federal-court-cities-rental-licensing-and-inspection-requirements-unconstitutional/
2. Why are Only Tenant-Occupied Residential Units Inspected and Owner-Occupied Residential Units Not Inspected? Aren't the Health and Safety of Owner-Occupants Equally Important as for Tenant-Occupants?
A large number of the 52 municipalities of the 1st Congressional District REQUIRE annual inspections of rental units at a cost of anywhere between $35 per unit and $350 per unit. This practice has several major issues that are unfair to the taxpayers of the district.
Owner-occupants are not subject to annual inspections of the interior of their homes. If the underlying reason for these inspections is to assure safe living conditions, these inspections should apply to ALL residences. In fact, the majority of responsible landlords, like myself, who own rental properties in the 1st Congressional District, invest more money in keeping our rental units in tip top shape than many of us invest in our own personal residences, in order to preserve the value and competitive advantage for our rental properties achieved by offering the highest quality rentals in our micromarkets. We invest that money in maintenance and upgrades because it makes economic sense to do so. In contrast, owner-occupants are inspected ONLY when they first buy their properties and then deferred maintenance often accumulates, sometimes for decades, without a single inspection by the local authorities. One can only imagine the high level of code violations in owner-occupied homes that go uninspected for years and decades! Undoubtedly, the health and safety of many of your constituents in these 2/3 of residential units in the 1st Congressional District, are at risk and the government chooses to selectively enforce the requirements of the 4th Amendment.
If the local authorities want to assure the health and safety of SOME of the residents, they should assure the health and safety of ALL of the residents equally and make ALL of the residents pay the same fees for inspection, equally.
In other words, if annual inspections of the interior of occupied residences do not violate the 4th amendment, they should either be conducted equally and under the same requirements for tenant-occupied residential rental units and owner-occupied residential units or they should not be conducted for any OCCUPIED residential units. If you think that inspecting all three thirds of residential units in a municipality on an annual basis is a burden to the local authorities instead of inspecting one third of all residential units on an annual basis, then following is a very fair and equitable solution, if we could only figure out why these inspections are not a violation of the 4th Amendment:
Inspect ALL occupied residential units over the course of three years. The units that pass the inspection will not be subject to another inspection for three years. This is fair since the owners of these units that pass inspection (regardless of owner-occupant or landlord-owner status) have invested the resources and care to keep their homes up to code. If everyone keeps their homes up to code, then the workload on the inspectors will be the same (one inspection every three years of "three thirds" of units is the same number of inspections as annual inspection of 1/3 of residential units).
If any given unit does NOT pass inspection, then that unit shall be subject to re-inspection shortly thereafter and again the next year thereafter. That is not only fair, that assures compliance for any homeowners who neglect their responsibilities to maintain their homes up to code.
This will result in an increased workload on the local inspectors but the added workload will also generate a lot more revenue for the municipality, which let's be real, is one motivation for townships in the 1st Congressional District that charge up to a whopping $350 per year for an inspection that takes 2-5 minutes by an inspector.
In summary, there are two major questions that must be answered.
1. What really is the motivation for inspections of occupied homes? Health and safety for all voters (err, occupants)? Revenues for the municipality? This question needs to be addressed honestly and publicly.
2. Are warrantless inspections of occupied residential units, whether owner-occupied or tenant-occupied, a violation of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States? If so, is it right to stand by and do nothing when thousands of violations of the Constitution occur in most municipalities in your Congressional District?
Where do you, our Congressman, stand on the issue of annual inspections of both tenant-occupied and owner-occupied residential units as well as whether these inspections are consistent with the 4th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States? If they are not a violation, then where do you stand on the neglect of inspection of owner-occupied residential units that likely have code violations by the thousands in every municipality in your district?